Google's Next Big Move
by David Leonhardt

(Will your website be ready, or will you be playing catch-up 
six months too late?)

November, 2003 might go down in history as the month that Google 
shook a lot of smug webmasters and search engine optimization 
(SEO) specialists from the apple tree. But more than likely, it 
was just a precursor of the BIG shakeup to come.

Google highly touts its secret PageRank algorithm. Although 
PageRank is just one factor in choosing what sites appear on a 
specific search, it is the main way that Google determines the 
"importance" of a website.

In recent months, SEO specialists have become expert at 
manipulating PageRank, particularly through link exchanges. 

There is nothing wrong with links. They make the Web a web 
rather than a series of isolated islands. However, PageRank 
relies on the naturally "democratic" nature of the web, whereby 
webmasters link to sites they feel are important for their 
visitors. Google rightly sees link exchanges designed to boost 
PageRank as stuffing the ballot box.

I was not surprised to see Google try to counter all the SEO 
efforts. In fact, I have been arguing the case with many non-
believing SEO specialists over the past couple months. But I was 
surprised to see the clumsy way in which Google chose to do it.

Google targeted specific search terms, including many of the 
most competitive and commercial terms. Many websites lost top 
positions in five or six terms, but maintain their positions in 
several others. This had never happened before. Give credit to 
Barry Lloyd of 
( for 
cleverly uncovering the process.

For Google, this shakeup is just a temporary fix. It will have 
to make much bigger changes if it is serious about harnessing the 
"democratic" nature of the Web and neutralizing the artificial 
results of so many link exchanges.

Here are a few techniques Google might use (remember to think 
like a search engine):

1. Google might start valuing inbound links within paragraphs 
much higher than links that stand on their own (for all we know, 
Google is already doing this). Such links are much less likely 
to be the product of a link exchange, and therefore more likely 
to be genuine "democratic" votes.

2. Google might look at the concentration of inbound links across 
a website. If most inbound links point to the home page, that is 
another possible indicator of a link exchange, or at least that 
the site's content is not important enough to draw inbound links 
(and it is content that Google wants to deliver to its searchers).

3. Google might take a sample of inbound links to a domain, and 
check to see how many are reciprocated back to the linking 
domains. If a high percentage are reciprocated, Google might 
reduce the site's PageRank accordingly. Or, it might set a cut-
point, dropping from its index any website with too many of its 
inbound links reciprocated.

4. Google might start valuing outbound links more highly. Two 
pages with 100 inbound links are, in theory, valued equally, 
even if one has 20 outbound links and the other has none. But 
why should Google send its searchers down a dead-end street, 
when the information highway is paved just as smoothly on a 
major thoroughfare?

5. Google might weigh a website's outbound link concentration. 
A website with most outbound links concentrated on just a few 
pages is more likely to be a "link-exchanger" than a site with 
links spread out across its pages.

Google might use a combination of these techniques and ones not 
mentioned here. We cannot predict the exact algorithm, nor can 
we assume that it will remain constant. What we can do is to 
prepare our websites to look and act like a website would on a 
"democratic" Web as Google would see it.

For Google to hold its own against upstart search engines, it 
must deliver on its PageRank promise. Its results reflect the 
"democratic" nature of the Web. Its algorithm must prod 
webmasters to give links on their own merit. That won't be easy 
or even completely possible. And people will always find ways to 
turn Google's algorithm to their advantage. But the techniques 
above can send the Internet a long way back to where Google 
promises it will be.

The time is now to start preparing your website for the changes 
to come.

David Leonhardt is an online and offline publicity specialist who 
believes in getting in front of the ball, rather than chasing it 
downhill. To get your website optimized, email him at . For a copy of Don't Get Banned By The 
Search Engines: . For a copy of 
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